FAQs about Seals

If I see a seal on land, is it sick?
Seals that are seen on land are not necessarily stranded or in need of help.  Seals are semi-aquatic, which means they spend part of their lives on land and part in the water.  Seals haul out on land to rest, to get warm and dry, to molt, and to give birth.  However, some seals that haul out on land are, in fact, in need of medical attention and are considered stranded.  Accordingly, every time IFAW receives a report of a seal on the beach, we send trained volunteers or staff to complete a health assessment of the animal to determine whether it represents a stranding or simply a sighting of a healthy animal.
Seals typically strand due to illness or injury.  Some young animals fail to thrive once they are weaned from their mothers, and older animals may die of other natural causes.  Over the past ten years, 10% percent of all seal strandings were caused by human interactions (entanglements, vessel, strikes, gun shots, ingestion of marine debris, harassment, etc.) 

What is the difference between a seal and a sea lion?
Here in the North Atlantic, we only have what are called “true seals,” not sea lions or fur seals.  See the chart of the differences to the right.

Don’t seals need to be wet?
No, they do not need to be wet constantly. Seals need to haul out on land for a variety of reasons: to rest, get warm and dry, give birth, and molt (annual shedding of old hair). A seal on the beach is there because it wants to be. Pouring water on the animal will be stressful and cause it to expend more energy to dry off again.  In addition, it may drive an animal in need of rest back into the water before it is ready, and approaching these animals closely may be very dangerous for the well-intended beachgoer.

Should we feed the seal on the beach?
No, seals should never be offered food. Not only is it illegal, but it is also dangerous for both you and the seal.  Seals may become ill from the food or may become dependant on humans for food.  Seals are wild animals that can be aggressive and bite, causing major wounds and possibly infections to humans. 

Do seals need to eat every day?
No, a seal's body stores enough fat in the blubber layer to allow the animal to go for extended periods of time without eating. In addition, most seals are opportunistic feeders and will consume a variety of fish, shellfish and crustaceans when they are available to them.

How long can seals stay out of the water?
Seals can stay out of the water for extended periods depending on the needs of the individual. It can be completely normal for some species of seals to spend several days to even a week at a time out of the water.

Is it normal for seals to be seen alone?
Yes, most species of seals will be sighted alone. Ice seals (harp and hooded seals) in particular, are almost always sighted alone in this region during the winter months.  However, it is common to find groups of harbor and gray seals hauled out together seasonally.

Has it been separated from its mother?
Seal pups spend a very short amount of time with their mothers. The hooded seal, for instance, only spends 4 days nursing from its mother. After that, they are on their own to learn how to hunt and survive. Few seal pups seen on Cape Cod are maternally dependent.

It looks like it is having difficulty moving. Is something wrong with it?
Seals, as opposed to sea lions or walruses, inch along on their bellies when on land. They do not have the ability to rotate their rear flippers forward to walk on them. They also have very short front flippers that cannot support their bodies in an upright position. Seals normally appear very awkward on land.  Seals may also choose not to use one flipper when moving along on land.  It is extremely rare for a seal’s flipper to be broken, and often animals chose to favor a flipper if there is a small cut or abrasion present. 

If the seal is shivering, should we cover it with a blanket?
No, seals should never be covered with anything. Animals use shivering as a means to warm the body. This is a normal process. Placing blankets or towels on a seal can actually be very detrimental. Seals must be able to thermoregulate (control their own body heat). Blankets and towels can actually cause a seal to overheat rapidly, sometimes causing death.  Shivering can also be a stress response if people or dogs are approaching the animal too closely.  Be sure to maintain a distance of 150 feet from a resting seal.

How do you know if it is sick?
It can be very difficult to determine the health status of a seal on the beach. We can only assess what is presented to us at the time. Wild animals will mask disease to keep themselves from appearing vulnerable to predators. It would not be responsible to collect every animal on the assumption that it might be ill. An assessment of the animal's condition, including behavior, body condition, an external exam, and monitoring from a distance is the best way to tell if the animal is in need of assistance.  Resting seals are usually monitored over 24-48 hours before a determination of its health is made, unless there are obvious signs of illness or injury.

How close can I get to a seal resting on the beach?
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was designed to conserve marine mammals and regulate human interactions with them.  This law provides guidelines stating that people should maintain a distance of 150 feet from marine mammals at all times, including seals resting on shore.  This regulation not only protects seals from stressful interactions with humans and their pets, but keeps people and pets safe as well.  Seals can bite if provoked and may carry diseases that could be transferred to people or other animals.  Be a responsible wildlife observer and use binoculars to watch the animal without disturbing its behavior. 

What should I do if I find a seal that is in distress?
Keep your distance (150 feet) from the animal and use binoculars to observe its behavior.  Call the Stranding Hotline at 508-743-9548 and provide a detailed description of the animal, its behavior and its location.  IFAW will send out trained personnel to complete a health assessment on the animal.  Please DO NOT touch or handle the animal as this will cause unnecessary stress and could further compromise the health of the seal.  Seals, as opposed to sea lions or walruses, inch along on their bellies when on land. They do not have the ability to rotate their rear flippers forward to walk on them. They also have very short front flippers that cannot support their bodies in an upright position. Seals normally appear very awkward on land.  Seals may also choose not to use one flipper when moving along on land.  It is extremely rare for a seal’s flipper to be broken, and often animals chose to favor a flipper if there is a small cut or abrasion present.